This normal bacterium rarely has an affect on adults, but it can occasionally cause infection in newborn babies. It’s time to get in the know about Group B Strep
“On the 2nd of August 2015, I gave birth to my first baby; my beautiful, happy, healthy, perfect baby boy Zach. I could not believe how lucky I was… A couple of hours later my world was shattered forever when the doctor advised that he had bacterial meningitis and would not survive. He fell asleep the following day.”
Sadly, Zac’s story echoes the anguish of many parents. Zac contracted early onset of infection Group B Streptococcus – something which leads to one newborn death a week. What’s perhaps even more concerning about tragic deaths like these is that in nearly all cases, such deaths could be prevented.
If you haven’t heard of Group B Strep, you are not alone. According to charity Group B Strep Support, half of the UK’s 800,000 pregnant women haven’t either.
GBS is a harmless gut flora. It lives, undetected, in one in four of us and in 22% of women, it colonises virginal areas. It is only then, when it is passed on from mum to baby during labour, that it can – but by no means will – be fatal.
This year, July marked Group B Strep awareness month. It also marked the anniversary of charity Group B Strep Support, though it has little to celebrate as the charity finds parents are still not being given the information they need. To compound this, we are one of the few developed countries not to offer pregnant women routine screening for GBS; something that has lead to an increase on infant infection rates by a third since 2003.
The gold standard is a simple ECM test – a simple swab taken around the 37th week of pregnancy. It is only offered by a tiny handful of NHS Trusts, yet costs a mere £11 per test. In most of the developed world including the US, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Slovakia, where routine screening is offered, early onset rates of the infection have plummeted by up to 84%.
Why don’t we test?
The UK still uses 2003 guidelines drawn up by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, which base the possibility of pregnant women having GBS on arbitrary risk factors such as elevated temperatures during labour. Evidence shows indicators are not enough: 40% of babies who do become affected are born to mothers without any of these clinical risk factors.
Why are we not being informed?
In 2013, Group B Strep Support found around half of all midwives felt ill-equipped to pass on accurate information to patients about GBS. Chief executive Jane Plumb, said: “If we are not equipping midwives with the quality information they need, how can we expect for them to be able to pass this onto women in their care?”
What can we do?
A simple ECM test – using a swab or a urine sample – can be obtained by visiting gbss.org.uk/test or can be done privately for around £35. If a test is positive, then by giving intravenous antibiotics to the mother from the onset of labour can prove very effective at preventing the infection being passed to the baby, thus reducing GBS infection in newborns by 60% and deaths by 70%.
It is important to remember, in most cases, carrying GBS during labour and delivery does not mean that you or your baby will become ill, but it is certainly worth being informed about.
Learn more about Group B Strep by visiting gbss.org.uk
Words: Beena Nadeem